Cherry growers feel pain
Laura Brookes - Jul 03, 2020 - Biz Releases

It’s been a tough season for cherry growers in the Okanagan after a higher-than-average rainfall during June that followed severe winter events and other stressors caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alan Gatzke of Gatzke Orchards is no stranger to the hardship last month’s weather caused for growers and says the damage done to his cherries is irreversible.

Gatzke harvests cherries for two markets: an export market which has no tolerance for any defects and the local market here in the Okanagan.

At this point, he estimates lower production than usual for cherries, apricots and nectarines, expecting a mere 15% crop for nectarines and half a crop for apricots.

However, he remains hopeful this year’s cherries can still turn out good enough for the domestic market, where customers are more forgiving of a less-than-perfect cherry as long as it still tastes good.

“The whole month of June has been very wet and there has been several rain events that have had significant impact. We just came through one yesterday and another one two weeks ago, so as we begin to pick the cherries and harvest them we’ll get a better idea of what the crop will yield,” Gatzke said. “Right now it looks like it’s worth our time to go in and try to get a few. However, we can never tell what Mother Nature has in store for us.”

But the financial impact of preparing cherries for export grade is more difficult to manage, as it increases exponentially the greater the percentage of splits.

“In rough terms, it may be five cents a pound to sort a five per cent split, and 10 per cent split closer to 15 or 20 cents,” Gatzke said. “But it’s exponential and at about 50 per cent split, a cost to split it without computers doing it for us can be $1.50 a pound, just to clean up the cherries.

“The other thing that happens is our picking costs. We pay someone to pick them by the pound, and we only have half as many pounds, so the cost of picking is virtually double. In that 50 to 60 per cent range of splits, we find growers begin to abandon the cherries on the tree, because it’s just not worth it if we’re getting close to two dollars a pound just to get them from the tree into the box.”

Gatzke’s concern follows a survey released Tuesday by the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association that showed more than two-thirds of farmers are facing a bleak production outlook as a result of uncertainties and risks created by COVID-19.

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